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Aquarium Scholars program gets students excited about nature, science

Teachers at Title I public schools across the state are encouraged to apply for the latest round of Aquarium Scholars mini grants, which facilitate field trips to the three North Carolina Aquariums and Jennette’s Pier or send educators to their locations.

The four facilities span the state’s coastline with one at Fort Fisher south of Wilmington, another located mid-state at Pine Knoll Shores and the third is in the northeast on Roanoke Island with Jennette’s Pier due east of there on the oceanfront in Nags Head.

The current call for scholars marks the fifth cycle of money made available by the North Carolina Aquarium Society.

“For nearly five years the Aquarium Scholars program has provided one of our state’s most innovative educational experiences for students from under – resourced communities,” said Reid Wilson, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“It’s wonderful to watch the children’s faces light up with wonder as they experience and learn about things they’ve never seen before,” he said, “and it gets them excited about science and nature.”

Aquarium Scholars

Justus Beamon beams with delight after reeling in two black sea bass during his field trip to Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. Courtesy Jennette’s Pier

The North Carolina Aquarium Society’s director of development Jim Mulvey also likes the way Aquarium Scholars opens doors for children from across the Tar Heel state.

“To me, the most important aspect of the program is that we are reaching underserved students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit the pier or one of our aquariums or even see the ocean,” he said. “We hear from teachers all the time about the experience of their students seeing the ocean for the first time.”

At Pine Knoll Shores, social media guru Shannon Kemp reports that their Aquarium Scholars programming often entails an educator traveling to the school for a live animal presentation.

“One of those programs is called Journey through North Carolina, which includes encounters with live animals that can be found across the state,” she said. “We also offer in-house educator led programs, behind-the-scenes tours, interactions with live animals like our sea turtle ambassadors, and special activity programs like squid dissection, water labs, beachcombing biology and more!”

At Jennette’s Pier last month, some elementary students from Gatesville were visiting on a field trip. One of the children was thrilled to catch a nice-sized trigger fish and was clearly excited with big eyes and a wide grin.

Many of his classmates had never even seen the sea before and Aquarium Scholars was designed to help achieve goals such as this for these Title I children who attend schools like Gatesville Elementary, Mulvey said.

“For some of our funders, it expands students’ perception of and exposure to careers in science and conservation,” he said. “Others may consider this a social justice issue, in providing equal educational opportunities for students, regardless of financial circumstances.”

Gatesville Elementary School principal Dr. Shawn Wilson considers the visit on July 28 a “treat” and she was happy to learn from Jennette’s Pier Education Curator Christin Brown that there was another round of Aquarium Scholars funding available to her school and student body.

“I think it’s a great experience,” Wilson said. “We’re from a rural area and a lot of them haven’t seen the beach before; some have never fished.”

And that’s exactly why the North Carolina Aquarium Society created this successful program.

“For participants, in addition to experiencing a unique opportunity, they will learn from new perspectives, develop new skills, and engage in discovery in ways that are different from traditional classroom methods,” Mulvey added.

Brown often gets to see first-hand how the program impacts these students.

“I enjoy how excited the students are to be at the pier catching fish for their first time or walking along the beach collecting shells,” she said. “Students also really enjoy learning about renewable energy and building their own devices such as solar cars or boats and mini wind turbines.”

Aquarium Scholars

A group of Aquarium Scholars check out a sea turtle during an up close and personal live animal program offered at the North Carolina on Pine Knoll Shores. Courtesy North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

From outreach science offerings to Fishing 101 on the pier, each student reacts differently, Brown noted.

“Every student is different, some students really love collecting plankton and looking at it under the microscope,” she said, “while others really enjoy dissecting squid or catching fish.”

At Jennette’s Pier, Aquarium Scholars can expect to experience one or two of these offerings each visit: squid dissection, beach explorations, pier fishing, wind energy, solar energy, plankton investigation and ocean currents.

For principal Shawn Wilson, it’s also about her students making memories for a lifetime.

“They’re catching fish left and right!  The kids are very excited; it’s hot but they’re still patient,” she said.

Applications for the 2021-2022 Aquarium Scholars may be submitted through Sept. 8. For more information or to contribute, visit www.ncaquariums.com/aquarium-scholars.

Aquarium Scholars is made possible through the support of a variety of private donors including the R.A. Bryan Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, Grady-White Boats, NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, Harold H. Bate Foundation, Bill & Bob Dobo Trust, Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, Goodnight Education Foundation, Allan C. and Margaret L. Mims Charitable Trust, George Smedes Poyner Foundation, Tetlow and Roy Park Aquarium Legacy Fund, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q, Southern Bank Foundation, Triad Foundation, Walters Family Foundation, North Carolina Aquarium Society Board of Directors and additional individuals.

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